Who is Gulzar Imam and what does his arrest mean for the Baloch insurgency?

Security experts and officials have hailed Imam's arrest as a great achievement for law enforcement agencies.
Published April 8, 2023

Putting to rest months of speculations regarding the whereabouts of Baloch separatist commander, Gulzar Imam, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) announced on Friday his arrest, describing it as a major counter-terrorism achievement against separatist insurgency in the restive province.

“Gulzar Imam alias Shambay was apprehended after an innovatively conceived, carefully planned and meticulously executed operation, spanned over months over various geographical locations,” the military’s media wing said in a statement.

The statement, however, did not disclose the location from where Imam was apprehended. It also named the group Imam led as the Baloch National Army, instead of the Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA).

In mid-September, reports of Imam’s arrest had started circulating in intelligence and Baloch insurgent circles. Two months on, the BNA, through its official channel ‘Baask’, had alleged that Imam had been arrested, claiming that he was in the custody of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. The group, in its communique, did not disclose where, when, and how Imam was arrested.

Until Friday, Pakistan’s security agencies had neither officially confirmed nor denied his arrest, but security officials, in off-the-record conversations, had acknowledged that Imam had been arrested and that intelligence gleaned from him had helped in the crackdown on separatist groups in Balochistan’s Makran region.

Who is Gulzar Imam?

Hailing from Panjgur district in Balochistan, Imam joined student politics in 2002 from the platform of the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO).

Over the years, when several factions of BSO merged and formed the now proscribed BSO-Azad — a BSO faction openly supporting the insurgency — Imam was made president of its Panjgur region around 2006. Allah Nazar Baloch and Bashir Zaib, who are currently leading the the other two major separatist groups, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and the Baloch Liberation Army, respectively, also headed the BSO-Azad during their student lives.

Read more: Balochistan — middle-class rebellion

When a crackdown began against BSO-Azad, Imam went underground and joined the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) — a proscribed separatist group led by Brahumdagh Bugti. He soon rose to be the group’s operational commander, according to political activists and journalists from Panjgur.

Between 2016 and 2018, three major Baloch separatist groups — the Hyrbyair Marri-led Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), the Brahamdagh Bugti-led Baloch Republican Army (BRA), and the Mehran Marri-led United Baloch Army (UBA) — started developing internal rifts.

“The fragmentation in these groups began when their field commanders from the lower-middle classes challenged the groups’ heads, who are wealthy traditional Baloch tribal chieftains living in self-exile in Europe,” explained Fahad Nabeel, a security analyst at Geopolitical Insights, an Islamabad-based research firm.

Within the BRA’s ranks, which is again banned by the Government of Pakistan, Imam developed differences with the BRA chief Brahumdagh Bugti over several issues, particularly his leadership style. “Switzerland-based Bugti was attempting to exert more control in the overall affairs of the BRA, while Imam, who was managing the group’s operational command, was not happy with it,” said Nabeel, who has conducted extensive research on the Baloch insurgency.

Another reason behind the differences that emerged between Imam and Bugti was the fact that the latter was more inclined toward negotiations with Pakistani authorities, said Nabeel.

In October 2018, the BRA issued a statement, expelling Imam from the group over his alleged involvement in extortion and extrajudicial killings. From that point onwards, the BRA was divided into two factions. Imam reportedly had more control over the group in the Makran region and in some other urban areas of Balochistan, while the faction loyal to Brahumdagh Bugti, had strongholds in Dera Bugti and neighbouring districts.

Read more: An insurgency restructured

“In BLA too, Aslam Achu and Bashir Zaib revolted against Hyrbyair Marri and formed their own faction of BLA on the ground,” said Nabeel.

BNA’s formation

On Jan 11, 2022, Imam and Sarfaraz Bangalzai, a field commander of the proscribed United Baloch Army (UBA) — another separatist group — merged their factions to form the BNA, a new group. At the same time, the BNA also joined the Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS), an operational alliance of several separatist groups.

Almost nine days after its formation, the BNA made its presence felt in the country after it claimed responsibility for the bomb attack at a crowded market in Lahore’s Anarkali area on Jan 20, 2022. At least three people were killed and dozens injured in that attack.

“Because of his close ties with Bashir Zaib from their student life at the BSO-Azad’s platform, Imam was in fact closely working with the BLA in Makran region,” said a Quetta-based senior security official, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

In fact, Imam’s brother, Nasir Imam, was among the proscribed BLA’s militants killed by security forces during the militants’ twin assaults on paramilitary posts in Panjgur in early February, last year.

Implications of Gulzar Imam’s arrest

Security experts and officials have hailed Imam’s arrest as a great achievement for law enforcement agencies. “The arrest of Imam is a serious blow to the BNA as well as other militant groups, which have been attempting to destabilixe the hard-earned peace in Balochistan,” said the ISPR’s statement on Friday.

It added that the arrest of a militant leader of such a stature demonstrated “the capability and resolve of the law enforcement agencies to uproot the menace of terrorism as well as speak volumes about the successes garnered through supreme sacrifices of unsung heroes”.

Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the Singapore-based S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that Imam is without a doubt one of the three most influential commanders of the Baloch separatist insurgency — the others being the BLA chief Bashir Zaib and BLF chief Allah Nazar — and was quite instrumental in the formation of BRAS.

“Imam’s arrest is a great achievement at the tactical level for the Pakistani security agencies, which can help them neutralise BNA’s network in Balochistan with the help of the information received from him through interrogation,” Basit told Dawn.com.

On the ground, the BNA has already started facing an internal rift, as the group’s statements as well as background interviews with law enforcers and journalists in Balochistan suggest.

In October, the BNA announced that its members, Razzaq Baloch alias Polain and Hameed Baloch alias Mir Jan, have escaped after killing the group’s regional commander Babar Yousaf and kidnapping another leader, Zrumbesh, a pro-insurgency website, reported on October 17.

Last month, the BNA announced the suspension of one of its key leaders, Anwar alias Chakar, who had apparently abandoned the group. It also asked other separatist groups not to provide him refuge.

“Imam’s arrest has not only destroyed the BNA’s network but also affected the BLA,” a security official in Quetta, who requested anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to media, told Dawn.com.

“It is likely that Sarfraz Bangulzai, the BNA’s co-founder, is currently heading the group. However, the future of the group lies in what course of action Gulzar’s successor takes,” said Nabeel.

Experts are, however, skeptical of how much the arrest or elimination of one or two leaders would impact the overall Baloch insurgency. Nabeel cited the BLA’s case where the group became even stronger after the killing of its head, Aslam Achu, in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan’s Kandahar in December 2018.

“Aslam Achu’s successor, Bashir Zaib expanded the BLA’s lethality with frequent usage of Majeed Brigade suicide bombers and conceived the idea of using women as suicide bombers,” he explained.

“The militants associated with the current wave of insurgency are ideologically motivated, not on the basis of tribes,” said Basit.

Header image: A file photo of BNA militant Gulzar Imam alias Shambay. — Radio Pakistan/file